Monday, May 25, 2009

Keep Your Mouth Shut.

Lamont’s Lists
May 2009

Keep Your Mouth Shut.
And Other Etiquette Rules For New Jersey Transit Commuters

The other day on my way home from work in Manhattan, a rather large guy squeezed in next to me as the fourth passenger in a four way seat (a flagrant violation of commuter etiquette). Sensing that he might be the chatty type, I quickly began fumbling around for some avoidance signals (started texting on my phone, pulled out my headphones, etc). Despite my efforts, he started yapping anyway (he opened with the old “how do you like that phone?” lead in as he eyed my latest smartphone). Much to my discomfort, he then proceeded to yammer all the way home, waxing poetic about a wide assortment of mundane topics.

That painful ride got me to thinking about commuter train etiquette. New Jersey to Manhattan train commuters are some of the world’s most curmudgeonly and that is totally understandable. It’s a brutal existence, freezing in the winter, hellish in the summer, delayed year-round. As commuters we know that over the years, hundreds of precious hours will be shaved from our lives and for that we are bitter. It’s the price we have to pay for our backyards, pristine soccer fields and unfettered access to the Short Hills Mall.

For all of this misery, the least we can ask is that idiots not make things worse by violating basic commuter etiquette. To protect the greater good I have developed 10 rules to follow that will hopefully preserve some minimal level of dignity. They fall into four general categories: 1.) Keep Your Mouth Shut, 2.) Understand The Complexities Of Seat Selection, 3.) Choose Your Entertainment Materials Wisely, and 4.) Don’t Stink Up The Joint. Further details on these rules are outlined below. Violate them at your own peril.

Keep Your Mouth Shut
Of all the evils in the world, talking on a morning commuter train has to be amongst the most egregious. The morning train ride is meant to be endured in silence. As fellow riders, we’re all tired, testy and trying to get ourselves mentally prepared for the soul-sapping day ahead. This is no time for idle chitchat. Find something to read, grab a few last minute z’s, fire up some tunes. Do anything you want…just keep your mouth shut.

1. No Talking on the phone
This is easily the most serious offense. A public flogging should be administered to those who abuse this rule. However, there are a few caveats to keep in mind:

a. Non-urgent calls are strictly off-limits, but quick calls are ok.
Sometimes it’s necessary to sort out some quick details or give a status update (“Honey, I made the 5:45. Sure, I’ll grab some Chinese”). That’s tolerated; just keep it low, business-like and brief.

b. Serious trumps jovial
Making a tidy business call is fine (“I’m running 10 minutes late, don’t start without me”) but do not wade into casual conversation.

2. No talking to friends
Second only to cell phone abusers are friends who sit next to each other and use the train ride as an opportunity to catch up. Really, do you think we want to hear about your dorky suburban weekend activities or summer camp plans for junior? NO! Here is a tip that is well known by seasoned commuters: if you bump into a neighbor at the station, feel free to laugh it up and make small talk. But when the train approaches, make up a reason to part company (say you gotta grab the Times, reload your metro card, whatever). Sitting beside a casual acquaintance for 38 minutes on a train ride is just awkward, make a break for it and everybody wins.

3. No talking to strangers
Third on the list of exasperating train talkers are people who strike up conversations with complete strangers. The annoyance here is mitigated by the fact that it can be mildly entertaining to those who aren’t involved (who can chuckle knowingly as the victim tries in vain to avoid being sucked into a pointless discussion). If you are one of these people, put a lid on it. Maybe you’re bored and out of reading materials, maybe you were an only child and need companionship or maybe you’re just a weirdo. Who cares, it’s not my place to judge. I only urge you to find the will power to refrain from badgering your unsuspecting seatmate with your daily musings.

Understand The Complexities Of Seat Selection
The rules around which seat to choose can be a bit tricky so pay attention. If you can’t follow the logic here, I suggest you try biking to work.

4. If ample seating is available: choose an empty row (it’s creepy to sit next to a stranger when plenty of empty rows are available).
Also, unless you are 6’5” or taller, take the inside seat so as not to make the next person have to climb over you (and please don’t place objects on the seat to discourage others from sitting next to you, that’s a jerk move that never works).

5. If there are no empty rows available, then go ahead, sit next to a stranger.
The key here is to sit as far away as possible (so choose 3 seat rows before 2 seaters). Upon sitting down, no greeting or eye contact is necessary, just try to cause as little disruption as possible. If all other options have been exhausted, then by all means take the middle seat. There is no shame in this, so don’t be shy, Work is crappy enough without having to stand up all the way in from some far away Jersey outpost.

6. Finally, there is much confusion regarding 4 way seats (a pair of 2 seaters facing each other) so here’s the deal:

a. If you are second to arrive, situate yourself across and diagonal from the first traveler (who, per rule #4, should have chosen an inside seat).

b. If you are third to arrive, then your options are limited, since you will be forced to sit directly across from (and with knees unavoidably touching) one of the earlier passengers. In that case, just sit across from the shorter person, try to avoid eye contact (so you don't look like you're trying to hit on said person) and by all means, keep your legs shut.

c. This should go without saying, but if you arrive fourth, move on. Four strangers should not be forced to cram themselves into such close and awkward quarters.

Choose Your Entertainment Materials Wisely
Staying occupied is a must. You never know when a 2-hour delay will strike without warning. But here are two important No, No’s:

7. No ear spray
The Surgeon General has warned you, the manufacturer has warned you, your mother has warned you. Now I am warning you for the last time…turn down the volume on your friggin’ headphones.

8. No simultaneous reading of my materials
When someone is looking over my shoulder as I am trying to catch up on last night’s box scores (or the latest celeb gossip; you got a problem with that?) it creeps me out. And I’m no criminal psychologist, but I am pretty sure it means that person has stalker tendencies. So chill ok? I’ll gladly pass the pages to you when I’m done.

Don’t Stink Up The Joint
Bathing, chewing gum and the brushing of teeth are no-brainers, but here are two rules people have a tendency to forget:

9. No perfume or cologne
I don’t care if you are a man or a woman. Given the extended periods of confinement, you must take pity on your fellow commuters by avoiding perfumes of all kinds. Defeat the tendency to overdo it through simple abstinence. Here’s all the pre-clothed body needs in the morning…a hot shower, Dial soap, antiperspirant. Done, easy-peasy. Step away from the bottle and nobody gets hurt. Understood?

10. No smelly foods
Right up there with the smelly cologne offense is the smelly foods one. Now I understand that sometimes a guy gets hungry and just can’t face a 38 minute ride without a bite to tide him over. But really, does that bite have to be into a whopper with cheese? It stinks dude and we can all smell it. Here’s the policy: if you must eat, make it a quiet, odor-free snack. Bagel, fine. Snicker’s bar, sure. Corn Chips, not so much. See where I’m going with this?

Thank you in advance for altering your behavior going forward to conform to these rules. Your long-suffering fellow commuters appreciate it greatly. As always, additional suggestions and improvements are welcome. See you on the 8:31.